SANTA CLARA -- Kendall Hunter showed last season with a 4.2 yards-per-carry average that he can rush in the NFL. But there's more to being an NFL running back than picking up yards, and as offensive coordinator Greg Roman explained, Hunter is adapting nicely.
Hes really starting to understand all the different things that go into playing running back in this league," Roman said. "Which is more than carrying the ball. Its pass-protection, route-running, catching the ball, ball security and the special teams aspect of things as well.
Hunter seems to have a beat on the carrying-the-ball portion of the job. He appeared in all 16 games as a rookie, rushing for 473 yards and two touchdowns. And he's shown significant burst to the outside this camp, breaking off a number of large runs.
Pass-protection detail would seem to cause more problems for the under-sized back.
Hunter slipped to the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft in part because of his small stature, but as the smallest player on the roster at five-foot-seven and 199-pounds, he's making his presence felt in his second NFL training camp.
I feel like I have an advantage over big guys because I can get under them and stay low," Hunter said. "Especially when they come between the linemen and they cant see me."
Hunter is in a great place to sharpen his blocking skills. Blitz pick-up is a point of pride for starting running back Frank Gore. The five-foot-nine, 217-pound back regularly gives up six inches and 50 pounds to the linebackers he turns away in pass-protection drills.
The soft-spoken Hunter is taking notes. He watched as much of Gore's film as he did his own this offseason, and based on his coaches' comments, it's paying off.
The first thing that comes into my mind when I hear Kendall Hunters name is, Football player, Roman said. He loves football. He loves to get out there and compete. He always gives his maximum effort."
"I think just his instincts, his vision, both have improved," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "It just seems the feel, the experience is there and in tremendous shape, very strong, running with a lot of confidence."
Ive never seen Kendall Hunter have a bad day or a bad snap where he wasnt totally tuned into football," Roman added. "Kendalls becoming more of a well-rounded football player. Were really glad we have him. He gets better every day.
Hunter, who is also listed as the team's No. 2 kick returner behind Ted Ginn, will need to continue to get better to retain the back-up running back role. The 49ers brought in eight-year NFL veteran Brandon Jacobs and drafted Oregon standout LaMichael James this offseason, creating a skilled and crowded backfield.
The 49ers will likely limit the number of preseason snaps for eight-year veteran Gore, and expect them to give extended second-half playing time to second-round draft pick James.
That leaves plenty of time for Hunter to prove the raving words of the coaching staff will translate into on-field production.
It remains to be seen how the four talented backs will split time in the regular season, but based on the praise from his coaching staff, Hunter will be a big piece of the 49ers' 2012 campaign.
As Harbaugh put it, "I think he really has a chance to have a big year."